It seemed that no matter how long Bastian was there, he would never get used to the desert. It was a hot, arid landscape of sand, sparse weeds and unforgiving sun. Sometimes in the distance he would see Bedouins and other desert farers, the former leading horses or riding them, the latter falling to camels. They came, they went, and still Bastian stayed. It was his post, mortars and forgotten things cluttering the small base.
His unit had moved in and taken possession of it months before; the abandoned city in the sand was a perfect base for operations. His superior officers could radio orders, there was nothing to impede with their satellite driven communications. Air drops every so often supplied them with necessaries: replacements for weapons ruined beyond repair during missions, ammunition and other weapons as needed. Sometimes they would even get lucky and there would be something that had nothing to do with the war. A radio, music, old books that had seen better decades but were better than watching the sand shifting and the sun playing tricks on the eyes.
The last drop had happened two days ago and Bastian couldn’t help but look forward to the simple pleasure that a half inflated basketball would bring. It was war and they all needed a break. It would be a welcome distraction to take away the faces of the dead, make the endless sand seem a little less red with the blood that never seemed to leave their hands.
His team had been out for nineteen hours—two hours longer than they should have been. Another recon mission gone wrong; another sneak attack when the heat of the day left the sand in the darkest hours before dawn. Terrorists or no, they were well equipped and there was no avoiding the way the body heat screamed out from the cooling sand to their technology. Eight men dead, none of them his team. There was one wound and at that it was only a burn. Hodges had saved his life and most likely several others when he grabbed the barrel of an enemy’s AK-47 barehanded and forced it down.
God, he hated this.
Morning, again, as they picked their way back to base across the sands with care. It was dangerous, shifting and moving like a living thing. There had only been one casualty because of the sand, but they’d learned it since that night as well as any of the people of the desert. He imagined that if he ever went home, back to the State and the city and the life of someone who is not a murderer, a killer without conscience, he would still have the gliding shuffle to his feet that he used now to walk atop the cool grains beneath his feet.
Cool now, the sun was rising and they would be burning hot before too long. Well before that they would be in the dubious shelter of their concrete sanctuary. With any luck they would all be foolishly sweating precious water as they tried to play basketball without giving in to the heat. One hundred and twelve degrees was not easy weather to play anything in; they might be wiser to stick to the shadows and play with the cards. Break down their rifles and clean them again, remove any traces of sand that relentlessly found their way back in within minutes.
A hundred yards, fifty, ten more and the sand became hard and concrete beneath his boots. He didn’t look back for his team, only counted the boot strikes beneath foot to know that all were accounted for. Simons would turn left in two more paces to the communications center to radio the recon back, the death count, the mission report. The expected veering came and went, and in four more he listened as Tyler went right to take what ammunition was left back to the munitions point set up. Five more and Bastian stopped, his M-4 now slung across one shoulder so that he could lift his hands and pull the Kevlar helmet off and scrub his hand through short, sand crusted brown hair.
“Get cleaned up, next mission is tomorrow at zero-seven-hundred hours,” he said with a soft voice. “Dismissed.”
“Sir?” Benjamin’s voice was soft but awake. The four hours he’d forced them to take had been beneficial, they would all be able to do some sort of relaxing this morning before giving in to the exhaustion that inevitably followed every mission. “We’re getting a game together. Paulin’s even got something rigged as baskets. Did…Did you still want to play?”
Bastian considered it for a second; his level of tired and the desire to do something so completely out of context in the middle of this war. He nodded. “I’ll play. When?”
“In an hour.” Benjamin was smiling; he was young enough, new enough, to still take pleasure in the positive attentions of a superior officer.
He schooled his thoughts to blankness before turning and heading towards the tiny bunker that served as his barracks. While not the ranking officer in the camp, he was entitled to the privacy it afforded to him as the second in command. Bastian had certainly protested the field promotion when it had been given, but he’d long since stopped trying to change it. He had the experience, if not the years, and more successful missions than anyone else in his Special Forces team.
Boots were untied and turned upside down on two metal rods he’d painstakingly pounded into cracks in the foundations. Vipers and scorpions would find no purchase to climb and give him a nasty surprise the next time he tugged them on. His camouflage over-shirt was dropped next to the arch that led to the makeshift bathroom he’d created, socks following as he undid the belt to his pants with a sigh. A glimpse of the mirror showed him that he didn’t look as weary as he felt, and certainly wouldn’t drop from exhaustion in the near future.
The brown standard issue shirt was next, tossed after over-shirt and socks and the mirror caught his eyes again. Blood on his hands, some on his face, dried flecks of it amidst the stubble that he needed to remove. His was a lean frame, wiry muscle and sinew over bone. It only chose to emphasize the only other blemish on otherwise empty skin. The Auryn symbol etched into the flesh above his heart. It hurt something inside him to see it—no matter that his eyes wandered to it every single time he saw himself in the rickety mirror, it still broke a piece of him that he understood would never heal.
So many people had asked him about it over the years, even his own father in the time before his death. He’d lied with each and every answer. His father had assumed that it was a tattoo, and Bastian had latched on to that explanation with a fervor that belied his calm and slightly nervous exterior the first time the question had been posed. Everyone accepted it with an ease that made him wonder at their lack of imagination, but then, he understood now, people accepted the read and easily understood answers. Once grown the imagination grew stagnant and stale and it was easiest to accept rather than question. Even now in this command, his SF team always assumed and never asked if it was a tattoo. He’d had the odd few examine as closely as Bastian would allow; each and every one of them had been amazed at the detail, the immaculate lines and color. The metallic sheen to the scales of Auryn, the way it seemed very nearly alive.
But then, Bastian knew the truth, and had since the morning he woke up after leaving Fantasia when he was on the cusp of the end of his childhood, fresh from the defeat of Xayida. It was the Auryn symbol because it was Auryn. It was his link to Fantasia and every memory of his childhood, of Atreyu and Falcor and every single being he’d known there. It was the symbol of his link to the Childlike Empress, to the realms of his imagination that somehow hadn’t died when he’d reached manhood.
Even as he thought it Auryn stirred on his breast, a faint movement that felt like fingers tracing themselves around his serpentine heads as they lifted from his flesh to stare at him in the mirror. Auryn’s eyes, all four of them, flashed red for a moment, a tongue slipping out to taste the air from one head while the other tilted quizzically at him.
It had been a long time since he’d truly thought of Fantasia, and Auryn knew it even as Bastian shook his head no to the unasked question. Will you go there with me? No, he would not go. He didn’t belong there. Not him, not now, not anymore.
Maybe he had once, but that was years ago and too many sacrifices since. Bastian looked at his hands, eyes blurring for a moment as the potent imagination left to him imagined them painted with blood—red and fresh from every person he’d killed. Only twenty-three and already skilled in the ruthless art of death. The very reason he refused to step foot back into Fantasia; how could he poison it with the person he had become?
It was an almost bitter laugh that broke across his lips at that thought. With the person he had become, indeed. If that were entirely true then he would have been back to visit, he wouldn’t have stayed away for six years. He would have at least told her why he could no longer visit, be the hero, the savior that they all hailed him as. Be the Guardian that Atreyu had explained to him that he was. Still was, no matter that most Guardians forgot what they where and whom they guarded well before their sixteenth birthdays. He was the only one who had made it to that cusp; no one had ever heard of a Guardian remaining into adulthood. And yet, Bastian had.
In all of the research he’d done he’d never found an explanation for it. Nor had Atreyu, or Falkor, or the Empress’ Advisors and Wise Men. They’d all been blind to it for years before Bastian had realized exactly what it was, why he, of all the Guardians of Fantasia there had ever been, could remember.
It was her.
If none of them had made the connection, Bastian couldn’t blame them. It was… unusual at best. Perhaps sacrilegious to the way Fantasian society functioned at worse. He himself hadn’t realized it until well into his sixteenth year and in the middle of a visit that he brought to a screaming halt once he realized what had been done, what had happened to allow him to remain Guardian. The mirror in front of Bastian’s face rippled for a moment, its imperfect surface moving like water to make him think of the midnight dark waves of the Acid Sea. The picture cleared and he had to blink several times to see it clearly.
Afternoon Court in the Childlike Empress’ palace, he saw, and unwanted his eyes searched through the bright colors, the sheer silk, the smooth satin, the exquisite pattering of velvets, brocades. Searching, he knew and did not stop, for the one sparkling diamond amidst the flurry of color. She was there, somewhere. Not amongst the petitioners, nowhere near the council and advisors. The dais was empty as well. She wasn’t there, and Bastian’s heart stilled in his chest for a moment. Odd, he thought, that after all this time he would still want to see her so desperately.
He almost didn’t realize it was her when he finally did see her. The recognition only came from the crowded masses as they pulled back to let her through. The path was set to the dais and Bastian was grateful because he couldn’t see her as she was, surrounded by people and with her back to him. She was gowned in white with her dark hair spilled down the back in dark curls. A tiara graced the top of her head. Even from the angle he could see her hands, pale and fragile and delicate—he could almost hate himself for the hungry way he watched her.
His hand moved again without him realizing it until he was barely brushing the silvered surface, his fingers trailing across the image of her. “I named you once,” he breathed out, eyes dark and focused on her.
Bastian breathed in once as he watched her a moment more, then her head turned and she stopped still where she was. Ice seemed to grow from within him as he realized that this mirror, this conduit, had tuned him to her and she had heard. He pulled back even as Auryn slithered more of his body from Bastian’s flesh, unwilling for her to see him, to know that he’d been watching her. Again. Better that she think he was like all the rest and that Auryn was only waiting for a new Guardian to arise.
She was beautiful, he saw; night dark eyes searching, set into skin as pale as porcelain. Her hair was almost wild around her face, curls streaking across it to make shadow dark lines against her pale skin, her eyes were wide, and her lips parted in surprise. He watched as she spoke, her lips moving, curving around his name. whether it was quietly said or not Bastian couldn’t say, but he broke the contact in a heartbeat, hand jerking away from the mirror to lay across Auryn and force the snakes back into flesh.
Within moments the images of Fantasia settled into the dull marred mirror that they had begun as. But not before he’d seen her, not before he realized once again why he was a Guardian still. Not before she saw him through whatever conduit had allowed him to see her.
Oh, it was her. She was the reason, she was always the reason. No matter how hard he tried to let it, to let her and Fantasia and everything about them both go, there was still, there was always her. He’d suspected some time after Xayida, he’d wondered as he grew from fourteen to fifteen. He’d known when he was sixteen, that final visit that had been so brief before he fled Fantasia and swore to himself that he would never return.
It had been the day that he realized that the Childlike Empress was not so childlike anymore, the day he knew that it was because of him. Because he was in love with her. He’d always loved her, he knew that, he’d loved her since the first time he’d picked up the book, little more than a child, from the day and night that he’d shouted encouragement through it to Atreyu and Artax, wept with the warrior-child and mourned his four-legged companion. He’d loved her always, had had to love her to have the strength of heart to make that wish, to name her and recreate Fantasia from the very seeds of his own imagination.
He hadn’t known, the second time he returned to Fantasia. Bastian never even suspected, though he wondered now at the way the denizens of the realm had looked at him. So wrapped up in his own youthful problems Bastian had never even realized that she wasn’t a child anymore, that the ethereal being that had been seven-years-old since the beginning of time had aged. Not just aged, that she mirrored his, that while he was fourteen, she was fourteen. Perhaps it was because he’d been so young himself the first time they met, he had been ten or eleven, she had been eternally seven.
She wasn’t fourteen anymore. She wasn’t a child. She was grown, a woman, the Childlike Empress was no more.
The heat sweltered against Bastian’s skin as he turned away from the mirror. The spigot outside would do for the crude cleaning that was all he needed to play a short game of basketball here in the desert. And she, Fantasia and all of the things that inevitably were brought to heart with it, would be pushed back again. Bastian would go back to death, the art of killing. It was the only way possible—he had to forget her. Once he forgot, perhaps the balance would be restored, perhaps she would be the Childlike Empress again. Perhaps another Guardian would finally be called.
He would forget her. He knew how. Without looking back he walked into the sunshine and the endless dust and sand of war.